The #CTUStrike: Education for the Best of Us Versus the Rest of Us

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 15:  Striking Chicago teachers and their supporters attend a rally at Union Park September 15, 2012 i
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 15: Striking Chicago teachers and their supporters attend a rally at Union Park September 15, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. An estimated 25,000 people gathered in the park in a show of solidarity as negotiations on a labor contract continue. Yesterday Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis reported the 'framework' for an agreement has been reached and union delegates are expected to decide tomorrow if they should end the strike. More than 26,000 teachers and support staff walked off of their jobs on September 10 after the union failed to reach an agreement with the city on compensation, benefits and job security. With about 350,000 students, the Chicago school district is the third largest in the United States. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Much has and will be written about the strike in Chicago. The battle in the Windy City is essentially about one thing: education for the best of us and then for the rest of us. This isn't just a clever phrase, however. There are drastic inequalities between the best and the rest.

The venerable institution where Mayor Emanuel sends his children, The University of Chicago Lab School, has, among many special features, an extensive curricular program that values, in addition to math and reading, fine arts, community learning, and journalism. Lab maintains a strong commitment to diversity, which is an excellent priority given that schools overall are as segregated by race and class as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. Also telling is the frequent mention of notable progressive educator John Dewey. Conservative critics of public schools consistently blame Dewey and progressivism, notably the fluffy, feel-good child-centered education, for every social ill imaginable.

Because Dewey and progressives apparently failed the masses, but not the affluent of course, then education for the rest of us becomes more tightly controlled, sterile, antiseptic, narrowed, and scripted. Educational programs in public schools, especially in inner cities, shed what are perceived as unessential: art, music, physical education, science, and social studies. Diversity? What diversity? Students in public schools, namely in impoverished areas, are severely segregated by race and social class. Within the schools themselves, students as early as kindergarten are further segregated, or "ability grouped," for targeted intervention in order to raise test scores. The mantra is not anything near "holistic concepts such as global perspectives and the environment," as it is in the Lab Primary School. It becomes "college and career ready" or "economically competitive," which are both double-speak for "job training."

Evidence for the disparities between education for the best of us and the rest of us are starker when you consider facilities. The rest in Chicago go to school, in many cases, without climate control. Even if free breakfast and lunch are provided, meals are cheap and loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and starch. Class sizes are much larger; instructional assistants and special educators, for example, are few and far between. Water is unsafe to drink. Sewage empties into cafeterias. Roofs leak. Materials are scarce and many schools are without libraries, a fundamental anchor of academic culture.

I do not begrudge Mayor Emanuel, or any other affluent family, for spending roughly $25,000 per child to attend school. It is every parent's mission to do what is best for his or her children. But the rest of us are consistently told that certain "education reforms" are in our best interests. We are convinced that practical reforms like common core standards, new high-stakes tests, and data collection systems, as expensive as they are, are completely necessary and are the best education science has to offer. Broader reforms like performance pay, removal of tenure and collective bargaining of teachers, and strict accountability are sold to us as essential to improve global economic competitiveness.

Interesting. If these "reforms" do indeed guarantee the best outcomes and will restore our standing as the greatest nation on the planet, if that is at all a worthwhile achievement in 2012, then why would the expensive tuition packages the best of us are able to afford not include these initiatives? I'm wondering if Mayor Emanuel is getting his money's worth. Without an expensive common core curriculum, costly high-stakes testing in every grade level and at several points throughout the school year, and laser-like focus on remedial-level math and reading, how on Earth are his children going to be "college and career ready?" Are we leaving Emanuel's and other affluent children behind?

The simple and logical answer is, "No." We are not leaving the best of us behind. They receive what have always been hallmarks of high-quality education and also get truly the best of what's to come. The rest of us, well, get an education that is diluted for the masses. Marketed as increasing rigor, quality, and readiness, it is more truthfully increasing economic efficiency and bloating someone's bottom line.

The strike in Chicago represents a firm line being drawn, at long last. We can have an honest conversation about test scores and yoking teacher and school evaluations to them, but only when we can make comparisons "with all things being equal." For now, things are not even close to equal: there is education clearly reserved for the best of us and the another system assigned to the rest of us.